City Paper is not for tourists
Toward the end of her first year as mayor, Muriel Bowser took Joshua Lopez to China, for what her office dubbed a weeklong “economic development mission.”
A former candidate for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council and chief campaign aide for both Bowser and her mentor, ex-Mayor Adrian Fenty, Lopez went on the trip with a group of about 40 local officials, business and nonprofit executives, prominent developers, and campaign donors.
Before departing, Bowser said this delegation “represent[ed] the best of the nation’s capital” as well as the D.C. economy’s “strength and diversity.” The stated goal was to attract investment.
The voyage was also an investment in Bowser’s personal relationships with District influencers. Viewed another way, it was arguably a return on investment for several of her most dependable political backers. One was affordable housing developer Buwa Binitie, who was a major donor to the pro-Bowser FreshPAC that shut down amid pay-to-play optics and concerns about nepotism.
Lopez, 34, wasn’t a FreshPAC donor, but he’s shown his devotion to the Bowser/Fenty “Green Team” by other means. He served as field director for the two pols during their mayoral campaigns, and as a member of their transition teams. A business-development consultant and occasional lobbyist by trade, Lopez has given more than $1,000 to Bowser campaigns since 2007, and more than $1,600 to Fenty campaigns, according to campaign finance records. He stood on stage with Bowser during her second swearing-in as Ward 4 councilmember.
Now, more than a decade of hustle and loyalty appear to have paid off for Lopez, thanks to the patronage that mayors get to disburse through executive appointments to local commissions and boards.
On Feb. 6, the D.C. Council approved his nomination by Bowser to the DC Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners, which reviews contracts and sets policy for public housing. DCHA manages more than 8,000 units of public housing and distributes thousands of vouchers to low-income families so they can pay rents on the private market. The board has 11 members who play a key role in supporting D.C.’s poorest, especially because federal cuts have gutted public housing.
But two established councilmembers openly questioned Lopez’s qualifications and demeanor for the role, insinuating that the millennial District native is a crafty political operator. Lopez denies these charges. He insists that he’s a proven community activist and public servant.
During a December hearing on his nomination, Lopez touted his upbringing in pre-gentrified D.C. “I was raised in a single-parent household in Shaw and I know firsthand the importance of decent, quality, and affordable housing,” he said, adding that he and his mother lived under rent control. Lopez served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 4 and is a new homeowner in Ward 7. He runs a consultancy called Olimpic Strategies, named after his Guatemalan mother, Olimpia.
Unlike many mayoral appointments, Lopez’s came with a dose of political drama and a gossipy backstory couched in Council procedure. And while the vote to approve his nomination passed 10–3, that count mapped onto longtime frictions between Bowser and some of her biggest critics.
Such tensions were on display during a Council legislative meeting earlier this month. At the preceding Committee of the Whole meeting, ex-Mayor and Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray requested that the resolution confirming Lopez to the DCHA board be debated rather than automatically passed through what is known as a “consent”—or en bloc—agenda later that day.
Then the rhetorical sparks flew. Gray, who lost his 2014 re-election bid to Bowser in the thick of a campaign finance scandal, spent almost three minutes slamming Lopez. “I am hard-pressed to find someone who is less qualified than Joshua Lopez to be on the board of the Housing Authority of the District of Columbia,” Gray said. “This is not a ceremonial board by any stretch. They’re making policy decisions every day about the future of people in the District of Columbia, the thousands of people who live in public housing … and are in dread fear.”
Turning to Lopez’s character, he continued: “I have seen this individual’s behavior in the community and watched him operate, and I think it’s just reprehensible that he is now a nominee for the [DCHA] board.”
In making his remarks, Gray consumed most of his allotted time, which reduced the amount that At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds had—per Council rules—to explain why the housing committee she chairs advanced Lopez’s nomination the week before. Chuckling at first, Bonds went on to cite Lopez’s business experience, regulatory knowledge, and familiarity with development.
“When we held our mark-up, the votes were there, and he received the votes,” she said.
It could have ended there, but it didn’t. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh chimed in to oppose Lopez’s appointment, too. Echoing Gray, she said Lopez “lacks the appropriate temperament” to sit on the DCHA board. She also critiqued his qualifications.
“From my interactions with him, I simply believe he’s not the person who should be in a position like this,” Cheh said. “I think Councilmember Gray’s choice of words is appropriate here. Having seen him ‘operate’ in the community, I believe that this is a very bad appointment.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked for a vote. Gray, Cheh, and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who had not offered comments, voted “no.” The bill passed.
Asked about these criticisms, Lopez says he looks forward to working with the Council on DCHA matters. He also notes his previous positions on a Latinx affairs committee under Fenty and a juvenile justice committee under Mayor Anthony Williams.
A source close to Gray says he knew he did not have the votes to topple Lopez’s nomination, but wanted to make a point about the needs of public housing residents. And a source close to Cheh says Lopez has disrespectfully attacked her on social media.
As chair of the environment committee, Cheh did not schedule hearings on two nominations by Bowser, in 2015 and 2016, for Lopez to sit on the DC Water board. The bills fell by the wayside.
A housing advocacy source speculates that Bowser wants a reliable ally on the DCHA board to promote her agenda, particularly around the New Communities Initiative, a long-stalled effort to redevelop four public housing complexes across the city into mixed-income developments that has a multimillion-dollar price tag. The board is chaired by Downtown Business Improvement District CEO and ex-City Administrator Neil Albert, whom Bowser nominated in 2017—to no controversy.
Lopez declined to participate in a full on-the-record interview, but notes in a statement that he’s “honored at the opportunity to serve my hometown.” He was sworn in at his first board meeting on Feb. 14 along with Navy veteran Franselene St. Jean, another Bowser pick.
“I’ve hit the ground running and have begun meeting with community stakeholders, residents, and councilmembers to hear their feedback and concerns,” Lopez says. “Improving services and quality of life issues for all our residents is my top priority. I believe DCHA can demonstrate a national model of sustainable community development while preserving affordable housing.”
His luck may have temporarily run dry after returning from China, but now it looks like it’s building up again.